On the afternoon of Sunday, November 9th, 1975, a huge shipping vessel disembarked from Superior, Wisconsin carrying 26,116 tons of taconite pellets bound for a steel mill on Zug Island, just off the coast of Detroit. The boat was 729 feet long and, at the time it was launched in 1958, was the largest freighter on the Great Lakes.
That ship was the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.
Memorialized in song, subject of books and television documentaries, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is the second-best-known nautical disaster in North America after the Titanic. Unlike in the Titanic disaster, none aboard the Fitzgerald survived.
The weather had been unremarkable when the vessel set sail, but by the afternoon of November 10th, an unseasonably harsh winter storm began passing over Lake Superior. Heavy snow was falling and hurricane-force winds started whipping across the water at speeds of up to 90 miles an hour, producing 35-foot-high waves.
The Edmund Fitzgerald altered its course, seeking refuge along the coast of Canada. At around 4PM, Captain Ernest McSorley radioed a trailing vessel, the SS Arthur Anderson, to say he was taking on water and his radar had failed. He was looking for guidance to Whitefish Bay, where he hoped to wait out the storm.
At 7:10 PM, McSorley radioed to say the crew of the Fitzgerald were “holding our own.” Minutes later, the ship went down. No distress signal was sent and the wreckage wouldn’t be found for another four days. The U.S. Navy located the ship using sonar, discovering it broken in half at the bottom of the lake, 530 feet beneath the surface.
Nobody knows exactly what caused the ship to sink, though the wreckage suggests a powerful, rogue wave may have snapped the 13,000 ton vessel in two. The Great Lakes had seen their share of shipping disasters – some estimate as many as 25,000 lives have been lost since ships began traversing the lakes some 300 years ago. The waters surrounding Whitefish Point alone have seen at least 240 shipwrecks since 1816.
But the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald still looms largest among them 35 years after that tragic night in November.
Crew of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald (via The Detroit News)
Ernest M. McSorley, 63, Captain, Toledo, Ohio
John H. McCarthy, 62, Mate, Bay Village, Ohio
James A. Pratt, 44, second mate, Lakewood, Ohio
Michael E. Armagost, 37, third mate, Iron River, Wisconsin
Thomas Bentsen, 23, oiler, St. Joseph, Michigan
Thomas D. Borgeson, 4l, maintenance man, Duluth, Minnesota
John D. Simmons, 60, wheelsman, Ashland, Wisconsin
Eugene W. O'Brien, 50, wheelsman, Toledo, Ohio
John J. Poviatch, 59, wheelsman, Bradenton, Florida
Ranson E. Cundy, 53, watchman, Superior, Wisconsin
William J. Spengler, 59, watchman, Toledo, Ohio
Karl A. Peckol, 20, watchman, Ashtabula, Ohio
Mark A. Thomas, 2l, deck hand, Richmond Heights, Ohio
Paul M. Rippa, 22, deck hand, Ashtabula, Ohio
Bruce L. Hudson, 22, deck hand, North Olmsted, Ohio
David E. Weiss, 22, cadet, Agoura, California
Robert C. Rafferty, 62, steward, Toledo, Ohio
Allen G. Kalmon, 43, second cook, Washburn, Wisconsin
Frederick J. Beetcher, 56, porter, Superior, Wisconsin
Nolan F. Church, 55, porter, Silver Bay, Minnesota
George Holl, 60, chief engineer, Cabot, Pennsylvania
Edward F. Bindon, 47, first assistant engineer, Fairport Harbor, Ohio
Thomas E. Edwards, 50, second assistant engineer, Oregon, Ohio
Russell G. Haskell, 40, second assistant engineer, Millbury, Ohio
Oliver J. Champeau, 4l, third assistant engineer, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Blaine H. Wilhelm, 52, oiler, Moguah, Wisconsin
Ralph G. Walton, 58, oiler, Fremont, Ohio
Joseph W. Mazes, 59, special maintenance man, Ashland, Wisconsin
Gordon F. MacLellan, 30, wiper, Clearwater, Florida